Philosophy in business – why is it relevant…….?

Originall published at the University of Edinburgh Career Blog for PPLS students

‘So you did a degree in Philosophy and you work in Financial Services… how is that relevant?’

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked this question. Since I began working in Finance, just under 7 years ago, I’ve been asked it at networking events, informal meetings, after work drinks and even at interviews and formal discussions on my credentials with clients. Whether this is from interest or ignorance of just how valuable Philosophy really is, I’m really not sure.

When I began life at Barclays as a Retail Banking Graduate, I found it a massively hard question to answer because I had very little professional experience. Typically, I would give a generic response like “Well, all education is important” or laugh it off with a flippant “Well, that’s what I want to find out!”. Now, after 5 years working for a Bank and 2 in Management Consulting I find it’s one of the easiest and most enjoyable questions to be asked as it gives me an opportunity to talk about just how important Philosophy was in giving me the skills and confidence I needed to be successful.

So I thought I’d share with you how study of Philosophy has helped me in a business environment, then when you’re faced with the same question you’ll be very clear about the relevance of Philosophy to the workplace.

Firstly, doing a degree in Philosophy automatically makes you a bit different – most people I’ve come across in business are Economics, Business or Politics graduates – and different means you’re interesting. The business and economic graduates have probably studied many of the same models, concepts and text books and are well taught, but as a Philosophy graduate, I’ve been able to talk about having read a range of books spanning over 2000 years that can teach us much about our social and cultural history. Also, my degree was incredibly varied – in philosophy at Edinburgh, you don’t just do one branch, you study many, perhaps you focus on Ethics, Epistemology and Political Philosophy, or are you more interested in Metaphysics, Theories of Mind and Religion? Having a broad and deep education is valuable in itself and you’ll stand out from your peers because of it.

The skills and discipline that Philosophy teaches and instills in you are enormously valuable in your day to day life in business. Being able to read and understand very complex ideas and conceptsidentify the most important and valuable points being made and begin to articulate your own views on them is crucial – I have to do this every day when reading industry reports on market trends or reviewing complex data sets.  Further, being able to simplify the complexity into terms that other people can understand and provide a view point on these is often required. When I describe this to my mum, I often say I am “translating” a conceptual problem into a business problem. Businesses are terrible at solving conceptual problems – they wouldn’t know where to begin, but give them a business problem and suddenly, you’re talking in a language they can understand. Philosophy is full of conceptual problems and your degree teaches you how to understand and discuss them.

Does this sound interesting to you? I find it fascinating. I don’t “love” Financial Services (more on this in a minute), but I do love helping people understand and solve problems. This actually gives you a surprising amount of power – I remember sitting in a meeting where I was the youngest and least senior person, explaining why the business should make a £10m investment in a branch. It dawned on me that I knew way more than anyone else at the table about why we should do this and my job was to help them:

  • understand there was a problem that needed solving,
  • understand what that problem was
  • get them to agree on a solution.

It can be incredibly empowering, but to be good at that, you also need more than just problem-solving skills – you need to be able to discussunderstand other peoples points of view and sometimes challenge them on this. Sound familiar?

Philosophy gives you a tremendous underpinning of all the skills you need to help decisions get made in business, because this involves debate, argument construction and influencing people – core philosophy skills. I prepare for meetings the same way I used to prepare for philosophy tutorials ie:

  • read around the subject,
  • understand both points of view
  • be prepared to present my views in a logical and coherent way that appreciates the big picture and respects other peoples viewpoints.

Being able to do this in business will really make you stand out – far too many people assume they know best or rely on their gut feeling to make decisions. As Philosophers, you’re supremely well placed to know a poor argument when you see one and well trained at deconstructing it before presenting a stronger point of view.All of this is central to getting the right decision made, and made in the right way.

I mention the “right way” specifically as people don’t like to feel that they are shown to be wrong, and while it can be fun to show up a grumpy economist, it’s not usually the best way to treat your peers (plus, you’ll probably need that economist to help you on a future project…). So, you have to be able to collaborate with them, ie

  • appreciate their viewpoint,
  • clarify any ambiguities
  • not take disagreements personally
  • work with them to help them understand alternatives.

This can be incredibly challenging, but also is very rewarding. Again, your discussion in tutorials and debates in the Pear Tree over a beer will contribute to developing your interpersonal skills and give you the confidence to succeed when you work with difficult people.

I should also mention that being a competent writer helps tremendously as well – all those bits of feedback you get from your tutors, personal tutors and lectures about your essays? Well, they stick with you and a very well written piece of business literature stands out immediately, partly because it is all too infrequent that you come across one.

I don’t love Financial Services per se, but I love what I do as it gives me a tremendous opportunity to learn and put into practice so much of what I picked up while at University. The other point that I really wanted to get across is, in my view, the most important, and relates to my first point about there being a bit of ignorance around the value of Philosophy.

Economists, Politics and Business degrees teach you facts and what to think. Philosophy teaches you how to think. This means that you, as a Philosophy graduate are automatically different from 99% of people in business, and diversity is key to private and public sector success. Business and Government don’t need more people who think the same way about the same things – they need people who think differently because they think differently, challenge the status quo and are not afraid to ask ‘Why?’.  I cannot stress this enough – too many businessstagnate as they have the same types of people making the same types of decisions – Philosophers are taught not to do that and your value to a business cannot be overestimated.

So, to answer the question – how is that relevant? Well, it’s relevant because we don’t need more people who think the same, we need more people who think differently, and as a Philosopher, you know the value of thinking differently, as well as how to think differently.